Friday, January 27, 2023

A Portrait

written by D. 

The vividness of color was spectacular. Lambent bristles of a fine brush, and skilled hands seemed to have imbued the pigment with soul: it lived. She gazed into the eyes of the subject, and felt an immense weight – unfathomably dense, like a black hole forming in her gut. Dread circled her heart and threatened to swallow it whole. It was, after all, an impeccable rendition of her own face which had been bonded to this canvas, in pigment and oil. It struck a dissonant chord of terror deep within Jean.
“Wow! Who painted that for you? It’s soooooo great,” exclaimed her excitable younger sister, Leslie. Her curiosity was immense. “But you look kinda dead, like a zombie . . . a pretty zombie,” she added, skipping to her big sister’s side.

“You don’t think it’s pretty creepy? It was left on the porch. I don’t know who painted it”

Ooohhhhh . . . it’s pretty and creepy,” Leslie giggled and skipped away.

            But that painting inexplicably bore fear into her every waking thought. Hours continued to roll by, but the haunting image of the portrait stayed, as if it was a phantom image produced by blinking at a lightbulb; there every time she closed her eyes.
Now Jean was no model, by profession, but whenever one of those people who she perceived as artistic, or inspired asked for her to take part in one of their projects, she jumped at the ready. This was one of those times.
            An old acquaintance, Nicole, a skilled photographer, sent her a message saying she wanted to do another shoot. Nicole always had great ideas for intriguing photos. So Jean met her a few days later. Once again, Nicole had found a run-down, abandoned gem tucked away from the roads more frequently travelled.
            It was a small brick building which, over the years, housed many varied tenants: a day spa, a clinic, a vet, and many other businesses. None ever seemed to stick around though, and so this building remained empty. At least, that’s the story which Nicole had told her, over the phone. Vines of ivy clung to its bricks and saplings had broken through the asphalt in the parking lot. Nature began to reclaim this old structure. Jean sat in anxious wonder, staring at this and thinking that it was an excellent location for their purposes.
            Slowly, a veil of smoke seeped between the slender trunks of sweet gum and maple trees, caressing their delicate leaves. The late afternoon sun speared the ashen veil, making the whole scene wonderfully ethereal. Jean was startled out of her daydream by a quick knocking on her car window.

“Hey there, girlie! The swamp is burning again. We oughtta go inside, get started,” Nicole stated. Motioning towards Jean’s backseat, she added, “who’s that?”

“Oh, sorry. That’s Leslie, my lil’ sis. Our parents are out of town. I forgot to tell you before. I have to watch her ‘til they get back. She won’t be a bother. I swear,” explained Jean.

“That’s right. I’m no bother!“ asserted Leslie.

“Ha ha! Alright. So long as she doesn’t get in the way, I s’pose,” Nicole exclaimed, turning and sauntering towards the front door of the brick structure.

Leslie jumped out of the back of the car and skipped along, behind her. Jean then slowly stepped out of the car and followed lackadaisically behind them both, staring off into the smoke. As she approached the building, a chilling breeze rushed by, rustling the leaves, and lifting her shawl from off of her shoulders and onto the ground by the front wall. She rushed over and kneeled down to pick it up. As she did, a small movement upon the wall caught her eye; incredibly, a small vine grew a couple inches, before her very eyes.

“Come on, chica. What’s the hold-up?” Nicole questioned, jutting her hips to the side and leaning on the door frame.

“Oh, uhh . . . I was just looking at the smoke and . . . the wind tried to blow my shawl away,” Jean half stuttered, in confusion.

She took a second glance at the vine on upon the bricks; nothing. It remained as still as a plant should. I’m losing it, she thought, that creepy painting must be getting to me still. She recalled more of its haunting features: her pale face, through murky waters; her lifeless eyes, full of darkness and looking as if they were beginning to ooze from their sockets. She could’ve sworn the painting had depicted her eyes as they are – green and alive. Now she could only recall this grim darkness.
She followed the bright lights and sound of chatter, through the halls of the decrepit old building and could tell, from the cold white floor and pale walls, though in disrepair, the type of clean, bright place this used to be. Now, however, cobwebs claimed every corner and all surfaces lacked their former luster. Dust hovered heavily on the still air, reminiscent of the smoky clouds wafting through the area. Nicole’s whole crew was already set up and ready to go. Leslie sat in a chair in the corner, wiggling in her seat, unable to stay still.
They stood inside a large, dilapidated bathroom. A row of cracked mirrors and dusted-coated, grimy sinks lined the far wall. To her left, sunlight tried to burrow its way into the thick, stale air, through the narrow windows along the ceiling. It had little success; it merely licked the upper air of the room and faded before it ever reached the opposite wall. In that far corner stood the remains of two run-down toilet stalls. She didn’t dare examine that corner any closer. The floors were covered with muck and grime, from years of neglect. In the middle of the room, however, stood a wonderful thing; a beautiful, vintage bathtub. Except for the four brass feet, it was made entirely of thick glass; pristine, and full of crystal clear water.

“Don’t worry, it’s warm,” Nicole interjected, “or warmish anyways.” She snickered, jesting at Jean.

“Do I wear a bathing suit, ooorrrrr . . . . ?” she asked.

“Awwww hahaha, you never said this was a nakie picture shoot, sis!” Leslie giggled and joked, from her seat in the corner. Jean tried to ignore her, and turned her attention to Nicole, hoping for clarification.

“Oh, haha. Don’t worry. I know how you are. Here’s some fleshtone bottoms and pasties, over here. We’ll edit it as needed. . .you, know . . dignity and artistry both intact, real tasteful; win, win,” Nicole explained, as she fiddled with her camera lens. “Deb, help her please.” She motioned, with a nod, to one of the crew members in the corner, who grabbed a blanket, and Jean’s scant wardrobe and walked over to her. Deb held the blanket up, taut and secure, so Jean might change behind it. She then handed Jean the blanket, to wrap around herself, and took Jean’s clothes and hung them on a small, empty clothing rack nearby. Another crew member approached her; the make-up artist.

‘I’m Jim, how ya doin’?” He didn’t wait for an answer before continuing, “let’s get this done with. You guys have much to do today.” He whipped out his case and brushes. “We’re going pretty natural today. This will only take a minute.” He quickly covered her flaws, and expertly applied liner and falsies to her lids, and rosy color to her pout.

“Alright, let’s go. In the tub with ya, dear,” Nicole instructed, cheerfully.

            Jean approached the tub, stepped carefully in, and lowered herself into the water. Warm-ish was right, Jean thought, shivering. Nicole walked over and tossed a few flowers and vibrant autumn leaves into the water.

“I have a few ideas I wanna toy with today,” Nicole explained. ”I thought the colorful flowers and leaves, with a beautiful lady, in a beautiful tub would be a good contrast; like an oasis of cleanliness and color in this dreary old bathroom. Then maybe, after that, we might go the good ‘ole bubble bath route – stir it up a bit - see what we think. Now, wet yer hair, love,” she directed. “Take yer time, and look pretty. I might get some shots while you’re down there, even if just to test the lighting some. Might be cool.”

“Can do,” Jean replied eagerly, as she leaned back and slid down in the tub, submerging herself completely. The water felt a bit more comfortable now. Briefly, she was lost in thought, staring up at the crumbling ceiling, through the gently rippling water; the lovely foliage floated past her face.  She felt relaxed. Since earlier that week, she felt oddly troubled by bodies of water; but this tub, this scene – it felt serene. She relished this warm weightlessness and silence.
            Again, some unexpected motion caught her eye. There was green; across the ceiling, it moved. It began to cover the ceiling, but she couldn’t make it out, exactly. Curious, and worried once more, she clutched the edge of the tub and quickly sat upright.
Fear and amazement was spread across the face of everyone present. They watched, startled, as thick leafy vines slithered their way up the walls and across the ceiling. It even scaled the lighting stands and the ruined walls of the old stalls. Brazen saplings cracked the brittle tiles and burst forth, hastily growing upward and branching out.

“Trees?! What the . . . What’s going on? We should leave!” shouted the terrified make-up artist. But he, Nicole, and the few other crew members stood frozen – shocked. But Leslie, she jumped from her seat and skipped around the room. A look of wonder sparkled in her eyes.

“Wow! Like a fairy land!” she squealed and examined her surroundings.

Blades of grass spotted the ground. The sink pipes rumbled, as small frogs and crickets poured out of the drain. This startled most of them into movement. They furiously tried to grab their equipment from the grasp of the vines, but they clung firmly, as if consciously struggling – playing tug of war. They screamed at Jean to get up and get out of there. She barely heard them. Jean sat petrified, chest heaving. She fearfully watched this phenomenon, a familiar dread surfacing in her. Leslie caught her attention, laughing and running over to the middle sink.

“Look, sis! Magic frogs,” she exclaimed, swiping up one of the frogs and enclosing it within her cupped hands.

“ No! Leslie put that – “

Inexplicably, some childlike and insane notion possessed Leslie. She turned around, smiled at herself in the mirror and popped the small frog into her mouth, as casually as if it had been a fistful of popcorn, and swallowed.
Her countenance transformed from wonder, to terror and she stood stiff, still staring at herself in the mirror. She grunted lightly, watching her reflection; her eyes went ghostly white and then an inky darkness swirled into the milky orbs, and a deep purple ooze dripped from the corner of her mouth. Her eyes went completely dark. She began to scream. Her darkened eyeballs burst from her head and, with the force of a small explosion, she flew backwards, across the room. As she did, the deep purple ichor sprayed the room and splattered on everyone present. Leslie smashed, into the glass tub and, in her death throes, grasped at Jean.
Jean let out a shrill, piercing scream, and reached out and grabbed Leslie's hand just as she slumped over the edge of the tub. There was nothing to help; she was dead. In her shock, she had momentarily ignored what was becoming of the others. She looked up to examine. They stood screaming in agony, covering and clawing at their faces. Their veins had grown dark, as had their eyes – just like Leslie’s. She expected the same to happen to them. Instead, she saw the ichor dripping from their hands. It was seeping from their eyes, and between their fingers. Nicole turned to Jean and tried to say something but gurgled, indistinct. Jean felt her heart drop, as she watched the darkened eyes melt right out of Nicole’s head. She collapsed to the floor and the others followed soon after.
Jean sobbed, still in the bathtub, face in her hands. Then she felt ill; she felt very wrong. She pulled her hands from her face and looked at her arms. Her veins took on a deep purple, so vivid, through her porcelain skin.  Her eyes burned intensely. She lift her hands to face again and, when she looked at them once more, the dark liquid was upon her fingers now.
The vines, and trees had conquered every surface. They pulled at the lighting, smashing them to the ground. They had also come from outside the building, breaking through the narrow windows. Thick smoke billowed into the room. It smelled of burnt, rotting, ancient acres of land. She again clasped Leslie’s hand and watched the ichor drip into the tub. There was no use in trying to flee. She only cried, and wailed.
Then she began to gasp for air and felt a pressure in her chest. She realized now what it had meant – that feeling which had been haunting her all week long:

“It was my death – our death. I’m so sorry, Leslie. I’m coming,” she warbled, choking and gurgling, as she leaned back and slid down into the water - slowly submerged.

            A shadowed man ambled into the dim room, carelessly swinging a paintbrush at his side. Paint dripped into wavering trails and globs on the grass-patched floor. The colors were so vivid. He came closer to the tub.
From under his looming hood, he peered at Jean. He gazed thoughtfully, intently – at her pale face, through murky water; her lifeless eyes, full of darkness and looking as if they were beginning to ooze from their sockets.

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